Ali Donaldson is a quintessential example of what’s great about setting up your own business doing something that you love.
Ali is the founder of Ali Donaldson Health in Port Elliot.
You know someone is passionate about what they do when (a) you spend time with her on a 36-degree day, her client cancels and she still decides to have a workout anyway and (b) when she says that if she won the Lotto she would set up a brand new gym and expand her operation.
She’s not your average personal trainer, and certainly does not model herself on what seems more like personal torture on reality TV programs.
Although she leads her clients through a range of physical exercise programs, it is the mind and the mental health of her patients that her driver.
“I have had my own issues with depression, social anxiety and bullying in a variety of workplaces, so it’s my mission to offer a safe place for women, particularly young mums, where they can come and know they won’t be judged and where they can flourish,” she explains.
“I have some strict rules – no bullying, no social media ridicule, no laughing at another participant and no criticism of what everyone else is doing.”
And it’s clear she’s serious about women being made to feel comfortable, as you will not see a single mirror on the wall in her gym.
As a mother of two children aged 7 and 8, Ali was also determined to establish a gym facility whereby mums could feel comfortable bringing their children along too.
“Everyone brings their kids along. Ninety per cent are mums. No one judges when a child cries.
“And I’m quite happy to cuddle them to enable the mums to keep going with their workout,” she says with a grin.
Ali has always had a love of fitness and sport and was a national basketball representative in her past. Her other interests have included martial arts – she holds a second dan blackbelt in karate – and she also played in the local netball competition.
She studied exercise and sports science at university and chuckles as she recalls how she thought she’d wanted to be a physiotherapist, “but I found the uni bar.”
Today she’s relieved she didn’t achieve the scores she needed to go onto physiotherapy, as she would never have pursued personal training as a career.
She believes personal training is more aligned with her philosophies and aims, to become involved in improving lifestyle for her clients, rather than in a rehabilitation and treatment scenario.
Ali was determined to set up her own business which she not only had control over and where she could be true to her personal philosophies, but which provided some stability in her life too.
But she was careful not to rush into a big investment too early. Four years ago when she began her business she negotiated with local councils so she could conduct exercise sessions in the local parks and reserves.
“It forced me to be creative at times when it was raining.”
The following year she hired local halls before sharing a lease with the local boxing club and opening a joint facility in Hill Street, Port Elliot two years ago.
Today she conducts 33 sessions a week for 70 clients. All but three of the classes are women only with the majority of men in the mixed classes being husbands or partners of clients.
Ali derives the biggest pleasure from seeing the transformations in her clients, not physical like you see portrayed on TV shows like The Biggest Loser, but more the mental transformations.
“Many of the people coming here would not have stepped through the door of a fitness place, and now they feel confident in the room, they chat with others and even catch up for coffee outside of the gym.
“I just love to see them flourish.
“I don’t believe in flogging people. They might be here for half an hour or an hour, but they still have to get through the rest of their day or their week.
“I believe in technique, and emphasise the importance of correct technique to avoid injury.”
As well as a passion for helping her clients, a big driver to establishing a business for herself was the flexibility it provided to be able to spend time with her children and husband.
“I don’t take any sessions that stop me doing school drop offs and pickups. It’s important that the kids don’t miss out on activities.”
And, if one of the kids is sick?
“It’s a juggling exercise. I’ve cancelled classes or they come along. The best thing is my clients are also usually parents too so they understand the issues.
“Fortunately my parents and parents-in-law have moved closer recently, so that is also a help.”
Her advice to anyone considering establishing their own business is to not rush into it.
“Take it slow. Learn as much as you can before you start because when the business takes off you are free-wheeling and it’s hard if you haven’t got everything in place first.
“If I had of jumped in and done this straight away it would have put a strain on finances and family, so instead I started small and spent the time working on a business plan, speaking with other business people and learning about things like tax and about the business.”
Other lessons she has learned include:
Be open to other people’s advice and opinions.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take it, but it’s good to take the time to hear it.”
Be true to yourself and your goals.
“You can’t be successful if you’re not true to yourself and what you believe in. You won’t be happy doing it unless you are.”